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Interview: Junior Kelly (2015)

Interview: Junior Kelly (2015)

Interview: Junior Kelly (2015)

By on - Photos by Oliver Top - Comment

"The same thing that’s keeping me sane is driving me crazy"

Sampler

Junior Kelly has a reputation for being a moody perfectionist. Today, discussing latest album Urban Poet, he seems more than satisfied. He sounds enthused.

He is speaking to United Reggae from Austria, where he is preparing to promote the genre-defying project with its producers Professa and Syrix of IrieVibrations (a project which, by the time you are reading this, will have been released).

It’s been very productive,” he smiles “We shot two videos yesterday. It took six hours. It’s the first time I’ve done back-to-back videos! I thought it would drain me but I was still filled with energy.”

Junior Kelly

Kelly’s self-confessed meticulousness when it comes to making videos is matched by that of IrieVibrations and their crew.

“I’m surrounded by perfectionists. Professa is a perfectionist, his brother Syrix is a perfectionist but it just so happened that the guy who is doing the video is living in the same building so we can get the work done efficiently and in a short space of time. Manuel, the video guy, is also a perfectionist so we would take 100 takes of a particular scene. I have no problem with doing that because I understand that from the perspective of another perfectionist.”

It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm. For Keith “Junior Kelly” Morgan’s journey in music has been one of highs and lows, being in and then out of fashion for his Rastafarian reggae, and now, it appears, finding an inner peace based on eschewing commercial pressures in favour of artistic control.

The younger sibling of promising pioneering dancehall deejay Sylvester “Jim Kelly” Morgan, he was exposed to the music at age 12, when his brother took him to Channel One studios in 1982. A year later Jim was murdered, and the teenage Keith, taking the name Junior Kelly, decided to follow the same path.

Blessed with a similar lyrical talent and his own, half soulful singing, half gritty chanting, style, he recorded steadily through the late 80s and 90s, working various jobs, until his 2000 hit Love So Nice broke him in the UK and Jamaica. Following a two disc deal with England’s Jetstar, disaster struck again when he was badly injured in a near fatal car crash in 2001. He survived, worked through his injuries and cut three well received albums for distribution giant VP.

By the arrival of the third, 2005’s sprawling masterpiece Tough Life, the lanky Rastaman was an established favourite on the European festival circuit. But as the turban wrapped roots and culture of the era that supported his rise began to be superseded, he went quiet on the album front for another five years. Eventually he issued a couple of low key long-players, distributed by VP and its offshoot VPAL, 2010’s Red Pond with Firehouse Crew and 2013’s Piece Of The Pie with Anthony Senior.

We have the power - and we need to reignite that power

Right now he’s fired up about Urban Poet because he feels it is the first record where he has total creative freedom. It’s also his first full departure from traditional one drop reggae: in the past he has made single track forays into Afro Latin rhythms yet here the melding of rock, pop and soul influences with Jamaican forms has resulted in music that resists categorisation. It’s both refreshing and brave (for reggae nerds are perhaps only second to heavy metal devotees in terms of interminable online discussions of whether an artist’s work is a true representation of “their genre”).

But Kelly is too excited to be concerned with that. He continues discussing the two videos, for Power To The People and Everybody Needs Somebody. Everybody Needs Somebody is “basically when you are living in a time where people are more consumer driven and more possessive and materialistic. At the end of the day they are getting a little bit more antisocial when we as human beings need that connection to humanity. We surround ourselves with computers – even children. For example, my son spends too much time on his computer and too much time on his tablet and smartphone. They will develop virtual friendships with people all around the world but there isn’t really any human connection. You can’t walk with your computer on the beach. There is no spirituality.”

Power To The People, a mixture of vintage news footage and studio performance was inspired by the Black Panther Movement. “My aunt, she lived in the States,” he recalls “and she used to bring down Black Panther books and my brothers used to read them.

Why I used that tagline is because of the struggles. I’m still from the ghetto and some of my closest best friends and people who inspired me and elders who I still look up to are still living in the ghetto. Some of the kindest people are from the ghetto. They are disenfranchised, downtrodden and they are being suppressed in many different ways. There are many ways you can suppress a group of people that are disenfranchised. So I say “Power To The People” and remind them within the song that we have the power and we need to reignite that power. I’m not trying to incite anything. I’m trying to awaken people.”

There’s an odd connection between the two topics – social media and politics. Wouldn’t he agree that a positive aspect to the hours we spend online is how people can see what is happening around the world – such as police brutality in America – in a way they couldn’t before?

“Oh yes. The internet is become this tool for activism and awakening people from around the world. It is becoming a small global village and a lot of people who wouldn’t be realising, as you mentioned, what is happening in America can now see that it is. If people from outside in another society see what is happening and say something about it then even that person who is in charge and out of touch will realise that world is watching and they have to do something about it. So it’s a start, it’s a catalyst and a lot of things can snowball and terrible things can be overturned.”

Society needs individuals who are not afraid to speak

You can read the rest of the interview in Q&A form below:

Your new album is called Urban Poet. Jamaica has a rich tradition of performance poetry – on sound systems but also on the stage and on the page. Which poets have inspired you?

Interesting. Well of course, Muta. Muta is the one who stands out and there is another poet Yasus Afari from St Elizabeth who is friends with Muta. He is very prolific when it comes to poetry – not in the sense of jumping on a beat and riding it…

They are radical in their approach and they are no nonsense when it comes to oppression and in some way they kind of remind me of Peter Tosh. They call a spade and they ruffle feathers but it’s supposed to turn your head and make you think “What is going on and what can I do about what is happening?” They are good people in terms of being pure in heart and in spirit. They will tell you like it is and they won’t sugar-coat it.

Sometimes I say to myself “Kelly, maybe you’re not ruffling enough feathers? Maybe you’re not being as controversial as you should be? Why are you always playing it safe? Why should I want to be favoured? If I speak the truth or say some radical stuff I may fall out of favour with the powers that be?”

So if there are some individuals who would dare to cross the line without caring if it will destroy their career or their way of life, these are guys who would go to the countryside and plant two acres of land and become a farmer and say “I said what I had to say and if you think you are going to blackball me and stop my career – fine. I’ll just humbly go into the woods and be at peace with nature and grow my own food”.

Individuals like those are strong. They’re not swayed by money or political influence. They are willing to sacrifice life and limb for the greater cause. Individuals like those always inspire me to do more and listen more. Every society needs individuals who are not afraid to speak to the Prime Minister to his face that they are messing about. A lot of individuals might be intimidated by those persons and wouldn’t say anything but those guys will say it like it is and we need them.

An example is the poet Mikey Smith who lost his life for his political opinions. So sometimes the risk can go beyond your musical career.

Junior KellyYes, it’s a real risk and those are the choices we make. Listen, I’m in reggae. Reggae is controversial. Reggae is powerful. It can change hearts, change minds, change lives right across the globe. So there are a lot of activists out there who are not singers or players of reggae but they listen to reggae and it serves as inspiration.

So if for instance Power To The People got used as a theme by some activist group I myself might get into trouble for it – but that is the road I choose. If I am banned from a particular country because an activist group might decide to use it as a theme and the government see that this guy Junior Kelly from Jamaica is the one that did the song then what can I do about that? I believe in my work. My work is me and I am my work so if that time comes when I have to draw the line or they draw that line for me then I cannot run and cower and hide and backtrack and apologise. I will explain to them what I meant and still mean. Anybody can turn it and twist it how they feel but if I explain to them what I meant in the song then if they don’t believe me – fine! I am willing to bear that burden and carry that cross because I cannot be a hypocrite.

How did you link up with IrieVibrations for this album?

I was on tour in 2013 and my manager at the time introduced us. I was in Austria doing a festival in fall. I knew of IrieVibrations but I had no link or contact at the time. They were at the concert and my manager introduced us. The energy was right and the vibe was right because music is a spiritual thing and I cannot do anything without that vibe and that energy being one within me and the individuals around me. It’s like magic. When something is right it cannot be wrong – in terms of the honesty and the energy I felt from people like Syrix and his brother Professa backstage. I knew we were going to do glorious and magnificent works.

My work is me and I am my work

The album has a soul music influence. Soul music, Afro Latin music, reggae, are all music of the diaspora – are they connected ways to express yourself?

Yes. I’m an out of the box thinker. I have so much in me I’d like to express. I love so many different kinds of music from many different genres for many different reasons. But it’s never to copy. It’s always for inspiration. It’s always for broadening my horizons. I love to get creative and think broader than just reggae. To add more spice to who I am and also to add more spice to my genre, reggae. You hear a little Latin in my thing because I want it like that. I will always try to do stuff like that – not even try because it’s natural.

I never got an opportunity like this opportunity with IrieVibrations. When I did albums with VP and JetStar and others I was never given the opportunity to fully express myself as an artist creatively. I got rhythms and it was to be done this way and I would have to follow the track and do it. And to me, a track where you get a rhythm is already fixed. It has its own key so whatever you’re creating has to be within those confines of that key.

With IrieVibrations I was allowed to create without rhythms. I would create a melody and then they would build the rhythm. And another thing that was very important was I was allowed the opportunity to manipulate a rhythm. If they sent me a rhythm I could change it around to suit what I am saying and trying to express. That was never the case with albums before and that’s why I call this album, Urban Poet, my best work to date. Why? Not just because I was allowed to express myself in ways I always wanted to but never got the chance, but also when I listened to the album I realised that I loved each and every one of them in such a way that I want to do every one on stage. Every one gives me a vibe. Before that wasn’t the case. I have albums and I love them and call them my babies but it’s not every one I would love to do on stage. This album is different. On tour I’m going to do all 16 tracks because they’re all strong.

Your previous album Piece Of The Pie was produced by Anthony Senior of AlTaFaAn Records. Tell me about your working relationship with him.

It’s a solid relationship. It started when I was at Cell Block, I was doing some work there at Syl’s studio. It was Cell Block when it was partnered between Syl and Buju Banton and then it became 321 afterwards. So I was down at 321 and he lives very near Senior so he came down there and introduced himself to me and the next night we did Receive. I have this luck with first time producers – they always get good products from me for some strange reason and Senior is no different.

The relationship was a friendship from the beginning. It was the same with IrieVibrations but with Senior we grew and became friends more and more. Senior loves the music and he loves to produce. Music is his life like music is my life. He is a true Rastaman who loves the music and wants to see better for the music. He loves to do quality work and won’t compromise.

Your album before that Red Pond has same name as an album by Charlie Chaplin – was he someone you were around when you were a youth in the same community?

(laughs) To tell you the truth I never knew that Charlie Chaplin had an album called Red Pond! It’s so strange! Charlie Chaplin had an album named Red Pond? Why wouldn’t I know that?

Charlie Chaplin and I grew up in the same community and I guess that’s why he entitled an album Red Pond also. It was the community I grew up in when my family left Kingston and settled in St Catherine. That’s the community Frasers Content but it has the nickname of Red Pond. I knew him very well. Of course, he was an older artist and an older brethren than myself. It just so happened that Charlie Chaplin and my brother Jim Kelly were the two first artists in that community. Charlie Chaplin worked on Stur Gav and my brother worked on Kilimanjaro.

With IrieVibrations I was allowed to create without rhythms

Your brother actually contributed to that Red Pond album – he is credited as supplying backing vocals.

He supplied lyrical content. I knew of the material that he supplied but I never knew that Charlie named the album Red Pond! (laughs) I don’t know why he chose to name his album Red Pond. Maybe we have similar reasons. I am definitely going to ask him.

A few years ago you could me that you wanted the airwaves cleaned up in Jamaica - how do you feel now?

Well we deal with the Broadcasting Commission as you know. They are active now and they are making headway in terms of making the airwaves cleaner. There are places for certain music of course and I am not in the business of suppressing expression. But we still have to project the fragile minds of our society, the young youths and one of the ways to do that is to clear the airwaves and the Broadcasting Commission have been doing good works.

We have to project the fragile minds of our society - the young youths

When a disc jockey plays a song in Jamaica they don’t bleep songs anymore because the bleeps weren’t even in sync! You’d hear the content and then the bleep would come before or after so a lot of the filth, if I can say that, got out anyway. So they decided that people are not idiots so no bleep song and I agree with that.

Another thing they did is disc jockeys are held accountable and a person who owns or operates a licensed radio station now has to apologise. They have to express their apology on air to the public. Once upon a time that wasn’t the case so everything now is more transparent. Even with the TV it’s the same thing. I’ve seen a lot of representation in terms of some slip ups that happened and they are actually and it’s not only an apology, they are charged for it, they have to pay a fine. Based on the severity of the infraction a disc jockey can even be banned or suspended for a while.

Junior Kelly

At one point you said you were one of the only reggae artists left. Is reggae music more popular than it was a few years ago?

Good question. (pauses) I would start by saying this. Reggae music in Jamaica is being played. We have a revival happening. I know the term revival sometimes leaves a bad taste in my mouth so I don’t like to use that term. In the context of the music and saying “revival” people around the world might say “Oh, so it was dying and it has been revived now.” It wasn’t dying. Why do I say it wasn’t dying? Rihanna did One Man Down!

I’m not saying there wasn’t room for improvement. There was tons of room for improvement. But it wasn’t dying. What happened was it became broader in terms of how it’s not just in Jamaica that you can find good reggae. It is still the HQ and we don’t want anybody to have any illusions about that. We still have some of the best writers and some of the best creators of reggae in Jamaica and I don’t see that changing. In one little community you will find hundreds of aspiring young artists of reggae and dancehall. There is no shortage of creativity for the music. I am seeing it every day.

So saying there is a revival is saying it was going out and everybody is trying to resuscitate it. If it was going out other people wouldn’t try to get involved with reggae and do music in our genre where traditionally it is not normal for someone from Greece to say “I’m going to be a reggae artist”. And the beautiful thing too is that they can come to Jamaica. There is no bureaucracy surrounding the music. There is no politics about anybody from anywhere else coming and doing reggae. It’s not the same with hip hop and R&B. It’s kind of different for someone from a different society to break into the R&B market. I know that. Reggae is more open and anybody can come and be a part of reggae and it’s been happening for years. You have the Ace Of Basses and the UB40s and so on. Everybody can come and be a part of that and be accepted too. Something like that cannot die easily.

So back to the point – is reggae being played as much as it used to in Jamaica? No it is not. But I don’t think it is because there is a lack of creativity. It is lacking in vision. Lacking in a creative approach to giving a bigger platform to reggae. Because if someone from another society and do well so that it’s popular in Jamaica and popular in their part of the world – why in heavens name can’t a Jamaican artist who does good clean reggae become a mainstream artist playing on a mainstream radio station anywhere else in the world? You understand the imbalance? They can come from wherever and do reggae and it is accepted and loved. Why is it that there are reggae artists who are still struggling who are good prolific performers, a perfectionist like myself or even worse of a perfectionist than I am – why is their beautiful street music not accepted on the radio or TV in another country? One Man Down plays in Jamaica and it’s an international hit. We accept it because the music is beautiful.

Why can't a Jamaican artist who does good clean reggae become a mainstream artist?

Is it because people are afraid of the message? Is it because reggae music is telling people in mainstream society to think about things that they feel guilty about? Things that were done a long time ago that they’ve been trying to hide from?

Reggae is as you know, the voice for the voiceless. It really represents the downtrodden and the oppressed and the poor and the needy and the disenfranchised. That’s a beautiful point and that’s something that I think about a lot too. But maybe it’s not just because of that. What about if you have album with many different tracks and mainstream media or the powers that be are afraid to let loose an artist they cannot control? “Listen when you go on stage please don’t sing that song. We love you for this song. Could you just do these songs?”

I have never been approached that way before because I am one with sense who says “OK, I am here to do a work. I want to be accepted. I want to be loved for my music. I want to change lives with my music and in order for me to do that I have to be accepted on every platform everywhere around the world. So yes, it might be, that the underlying factor is they are afraid because reggae artists, you can’t control them and they are unpredictable and might jump on stage and say anything on stage or on national radio. They might be homophobic and say all sorts of crap. Yeah, that’s a serious point and I am not going to sweep it under the rug and say “that’s not a part of it”. That might very well be a big part of it.

That’s an interesting answer but don’t roots reggae artists also often sing against colonialism and capitalism and many things that mainstream media have a vested interest in protecting the rewards from?

Yes, that’s the angle you are approaching from. Reggae in general is not conducive to selling Nike and alcohol and all of those things. But there are people that love reggae and come and drink their alcohol. It’s conducive to the pain of people and the awakening of spirituality. And of course, the powers that be who are ok with the status quo and won’t change anything, will say “If my population listen to this music they might start thinking about not just themselves and start thinking about others and being more charitable and myself or my products in my country might go down”.

Reggae in general is not conducive to selling Nike and alcohol

Yes, it’s against oppression and capitalism fundamentally. That’s one of the driving things that reggae stands for as you are well aware of. So yes maybe that’s one of the reasons why it is kept off mainstream radio and television and a lot of struggling reggae artists who are really good are not seeing the light of day. It’s against exploitation and the powers that be, that’s their driving force. That’s their goal – to make money – and sometimes they go about making money without thinking about the moral effect.

You mentioned that it is easier for a foreign artist to be accepted making reggae. But it’s also much easier for me to come to Jamaica and interview you than it is for you to come to England and do a concert. So it’s not a two way street musically but it’s also not a two way street in terms of travel for Jamaicans.

Yes, travel-wise, it’s bureaucracy again. At the borders we have to go through so much process. We are drilled and interviewed just to get an in transit visa to travel to Europe via the UK. A part of it is a moneymaking scheme. I know that. To make money off every traveller that comes through the borders from Third World countries and not from the superpowers who hold an American, European or UK passport.

A part of it is to make money and sometimes a part of it is to make your life more difficult. Because if I’m coming to Europe and I decide to travel to the United States and then go to Europe how can that be cheaper, going from Jamaica to Miami or New York, than going back the other way just to get to Europe? A flight directly from Jamaica to Europe is more expensive. It’s like you have to filter through that and then they earn some money from you and you go where you’re supposed to go. It’s the same thing with an in transit VISA from the UK embassy. It’s easier, as you said, for you to reach me, if you have the money and time and want to do a project to get on a plane to Jamaica and contact me and do an interview. As opposed to me coming up there – “Why you want to go to the UK?” There is so much bureaucracy, so much drilling and explaining. It’s like an interview! (laughs)

What you think of decriminalisation in Jamaica?

Junior KellyOf herb? Good thing, but we have to be careful. We have to make sure the new legislation protects the youngsters. Because I am pro-weed. We can make money from it. Our climate is conducive to growing some of the best herbs in the world for many different purposes. As you know, hemp is not just for consumption in the sense that you smoke it. There are many ways for Jamaica to uplift itself if the government tries to stay away from being corrupt – and trust me, it’s a big issue, corruption. Around the world there is a lot of corruption and my country is no different.

But we have to protect the youngsters because I don’t want my child to smoke weed. He is going to school, he has a young mind and he needs to be focused on getting his education. On the other hand, to have a spliff and be charged and you are exempt from going to the UK or America or getting a good job? Come on, one spliff? You’re ostracised for life? Come on. You destroy somebody’s life for a spliff? On the financial side so we can make money from weed so we don’t have to take money from the IMF or the World Bank – I am all for that. And I’m all for the decriminalisation on this aspect so you can’t destroy a person’s life for one spliff.

You are obviously concerned for the youth in what you do. Do you remember when your brother first carried you to the studio in 1982?

It was at Channel One on Maxfield Avenue. That experience was different. Seeing the lights and seeing artists in the booth was interesting and exciting. Of course, I was there with my brother and he was speaking with Super Cat because they were good friends and he was there with Early B. I was just listening to the inner workings of the mind of a true artist, a Jamaican artist to see how it was put together with the engineer sitting there. It was my first experience of how the music leaves from the mind to the paper to the vinyl to the public. It’s like a conveyor belt. It’s like a production line. (laughs) It blew me away that first time because it was the first intimate experience I had with the music and the creative side of it.

Do you remember who the musicians were? Who was the engineer?

Souljie was the engineer at the time. There were so many greats going in and out of the studio. Earl B, Super Cat and my brother, Josey Wales was there and they’d spend a little time laughing. They’d tweak each other’s music. I don’t see that happening with young artists. They don’t tweak each other’s music and complement each other on a job well done. But I have noticed with the elders of the music, some of the first toasters of the mic in the music that we love. So there was a lot of laughter and camaraderie between artists. That was one of my greatest experiences with my brother. You had Benbow, the drummer, was there laying down some drum tracks at the time. Gibby the guitarist came through from 809, I remember that. Because when I became much older, mature, and doing music, me and Gibby ended up working together on several projects and his name stood out at the time so I remembered.

Overall my brother was a good man

Your brother never had the chance to record as much as yourself. What kind of man was he?

(pauses) He loved to cook. He was a great listener. He was a man that loved his parents. He was a good father to his son. You know that American term – “bring home the bacon” – my brother loved to bring stuff home for his mother and father. He liked to bring bread home and stuff like that. (laughs) He was a good son to his parents. He would defend you in any situation. He wouldn’t abandon you. That’s why people like Charlie and Josey and the late Early B loved him because he was a true friend.

And for me as a brother, he was protective. He was one of the only brothers who would speak to me like a brother. He didn’t bully me and make me feel like I wasn’t accepted as a brother. Sometimes siblings tend to do that but for him it was a different thing. He always wanted to know what was happening in my little young world. He was involved in my life like that and I didn’t mind it because I felt that love and that concern for me and what I wanted to become. So overall my brother was a good man.

Which of those elders that you grew up around gave you the best advice that you carried forward until now?

(pauses) That’s a good one. One of the best, because I’ve gotten many advice from many different elders, but the one that stands out the most was when I started doing music. It wasn’t even “Oh, I’m going to be an artist” it was be finding myself carried away first by just writing and coming up with stuff and then it blossomed into a group of us who wrote and performed in various different communities around my community. I realised that I was doing music but I was always trying other stuff and then music would always bring me back.

But the advice that this elder, Martin Manley, yes, just like Michael Manley, who was way older than I was, I think he is about 57 now, gave to me one day when I was struggling and saying “I’m going to give this up” was he said to me “If you do that, you are signalling to yourself and to the universe that you don’t have what it takes. You have to ask yourself why are you in this business? Is it to make a name for yourself or because you love what you do? And be careful of what the answer is going to be. Because if it is to make a name for yourself then you are going to be one of those who are not felt by your audience. You’re not going to be believable. You’re not going to have that soul that’s expected from a reggae artist. But if you’re doing it because it moves you, it drives you, it shapes your life, and if you’re doing it because you want to change lives, well, those are the reasons anyone should do anything positive – not just becoming an artist. You have to give yourself some time and really think about it. If you’re doing it to make a name for yourself you are going to be one of those who are going to get weak after a while and fall by the wayside. But if you’re doing it out of sheer love, out of sheer passion, you are going to be around forever.”

And one of the things I used to test that theory, that thing that he said to me, was when I went home and had done a show and would go to my bed, I’d find myself thinking about music as I fall asleep. And when I’d wake up I’d find myself thinking about music. I went to him the next day and he said “Ah, you have an answer for me?” and I said “Yes, I can’t stop doing what I’m doing”. He said “Why?” and I said “Because the same thing that’s keeping me sane is the same thing that’s driving me crazy”.

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